Quinn, lawmakers continue feud on Capitol repairs

The Illinois State Capitol building in Springfield, seen last month. (Brian Cassella / May 13, 2014)

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday signed into law a new state budget disliked by the governor, his running mate and even Republican challenger Bruce Rauner — a $35.7 billion spending plan that bows to election-year political realities.

The new budget, about 2.5 percent smaller than the last one, holds the line on education spending but cuts funding to many agencies. Critics, including Quinn, question whether the blueprint provides enough money to keep state government running the next 12 months. The Democratic governor wanted to make permanent the 2011 state income-tax increase and keep the billions of dollars that comes with it, but House lawmakers were reluctant to go along before the Nov. 4 election.

“While legislators didn't do their job on the budget, I will continue to do mine,” Quinn said in a statement. “Reducing the budget and identifying additional efficiencies will help minimize the impact of cuts in vital services and maintain our hard-won fiscal gains. While there's more work to do, we must ensure the state lives within its means.”

Never one to miss a populist beat, Quinn used his veto pen to slash $250 million for spending on Capitol renovations that have drawn public outrage over pricey items ranging from big chandeliers to wooden doors coated with a coat of glistening copper. It’s the latest punch thrown on the issue among the governor and the legislature’s top two Democrats — Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan — over control of taxpayer funds used to spruce up the Capitol.

Republicans called Quinn’s veto a stunt, with Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine describing it as a “phony cut to a phony budget.” The money comes from a fund for construction spending rather than the bread-and-butter operations budget, and will have no impact on the money Quinn approved for operational expenses ranging from social services and salaries to school aid.

In the past, Quinn has shown a willingness to call lawmakers back to Springfield when he disagrees with them on things like the budget and pension reform. But this time, a governor facing re-election Nov. 4 opted for peace.

Democrats who control the legislature approved the budget at the end of May in part through the time-honored tradition of pork-barrel spending. The plan contains money for recreational projects, including $500,000 for a Downstate auto racetrack near St. Louis. The Quinn-approved budget also has $35 million for an elementary school in Madigan’s 13th Ward on the Southwest Side and a $10 million grant Cullerton secured to rejuvenate the dilapidated Uptown Theatre on the North Side.

The governor also approved Cullerton’s push for $50 million extra to help give Chicago Public Schools some pension relief, though it is far from the amount needed to cure the district’s overall pension woes.

By signing the budget, Quinn also gave up his ability to veto lawmakers’ paychecks, something lawmakers wanted after he used the maneuver last summer in urging lawmakers to adopt pension changes. And the governor went along with a Democratic move to increase how much money lawmakers are getting in their paychecks.

Lawmakers had been taking 12 unpaid furlough days each year as a recognition of the state’s rocky condition. They refused to continue the practice in this budget, giving themselves a minimum $3,100 boost that would return the base salary for their part-time jobs to $67,836. Most lawmakers also get an additional $10,000 for committee duties.

The new budget is propped up with $650 million in borrowing from other specially designated funds for myriad programs that the governor can choose to tap. The move could widen a hole in already-strained future budgets that may be as much as $4.8 billion short without keeping Quinn’s tax hike in place.

Republicans have warned that Democrats are just biding their time with a budget that gets them through the November election and then they’ll once again push through a lame-duck session tax increase. That’s how the current 5 percent personal income tax rate rose from 3 percent in January 2011, two months after Quinn was elected. The tax rate is scheduled to drop to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1.

Criticism of the budget has come from Quinn’s own running mate, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, who expressed disappointment after it was passed. Vallas told the News-Gazette of Champaign that it “bothers me that we’re borrowing again and we seem to be relapsing into the same kinds of practices that got us into this position in the first place.”

The dispute between lawmakers and the governor over Capitol renovations spending dates back to last year. A $50 million price tag was unveiled last summer for renovations on just one wing of the Capitol, igniting a public fury. The trio of copper-coated doors alone cost nearly $670,000 — bad optics when the state is pressed for funds.

Quinn joined in with an outraged public and blocked Capitol renovations spending last September. In May, Cullerton and Madigan slipped a provision into a budget bill that would have blocked Quinn from being able to stop the spending.

When Quinn signed that bill over the weekend, it looked momentarily like the lawmakers might have won the battle. But Quinn’s decision to veto the money for renovations sent the fight into a new round.

Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon sought to downplay the Quinn cuts, saying the lawmakers who oversee the spending won’t have to back out of contracts. Lawmakers also could choose to override Quinn after the election.

Quinn also announced Monday that he has called for cutting down the state’s fleet of aircraft from 21 to 12. He said the state spends $7 million to operate the fleet each year.

Rauner wasted no time slamming Quinn for using the planes. Rauner has been critical of the administration for flying prairie chickens in from out of state to help replenish the dwindling population of the birds that once covered the Illinois prairie.

But Rauner’s camp, which has given little more than an outline of potential cuts, also issued a statement criticizing Quinn on the budget.

“Pat Quinn broke his promise on taxes and his only goal is to permanently take more money out of every hard-working Illinoisans’ paycheck – and this broken budget is the result,” the statement read in part.

rlong@tribune.com

mcgarcia@tribune.com